One of my favorite things growing up was reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales with my sister. Each night, we would choose a story to read. These were the real deal, not the Disneyfied, sanitized ones you may know from kiddie versions. A lot of these tales take dark twists and turns with murder, robbery, dismemberment, magic, cannibalism, deception, malevolence, and even incest! Often, women are the clever heroes who outwit beasts, abusive elders, and disguised trolls who wish them harm. Now that I’m an adult, I’ve been listening to a podcast that reviews individual Grimm’s Tales: Grimm Reading. This podcast takes a deeper look at individual tales, including tracing the source material, reviewing various versions, and understanding the different interpretations of these mythic tales.
In a recent episode, they reviewed a strange (and frankly not that great) tale called The Three Languages. In this tale, a young man’s father sends him to get an education, and all he learns are animal languages. The father condemns his son to death (harsh! this guy really valued a specific type of education!), but those sent to execute his son are unwilling, so they set him free and kill a deer instead. As one does. The young man decides to take a vacation to Rome (he’s from Switzerland), and when he gets there, the Pope has unexpectedly died, and they are trying to find a replacement, but they want a miraculous sign to make the decision for them. When he walks in, two doves land on his shoulders, so they make him Pope, even though he’s never done a mass in his life. I’ve cut out a lot of the story, but that’s the quick and dirty version. There’s some stuff in there about frogs predicting his future, and whatnot. You get the gist. I assume you know roughly how these stories work. This particular story sounds like some weird dream you might have where it starts out being about one thing and ends up being even weirder, and about something totally else.
In the podcast, they evaluate this story based on three different types of literary criticism:
- Historical. They evaluate the story in the context of other versions of the story, where and when they came from, and what elements came from different myths. Because the Grimms were compiling stories passed down through oral traditions, different versions were common. In terms of literal history, there has not been a Pope from Switzerland (although obviously, the Swiss Guard is a connection), so as a Pope origin story, it fails the literal history test (if you’re willing to concede learning animal languages). It does weave in elements of at least 3 different stories about Catholic historical figures, though, and these similarities are interesting to assess where the story came from. The podcast discussed these other sources with an expert from Pontifacts, a podcast that shares potentially irreverent episodes about papal history.
- Romantic. The Grimms brothers were compiling these stories in response to the Romantic movement in literature, which included a rejection of institutions (e.g. in this case, the Church) in favor of natural or even Pagan origins. In this story, the father is set on “traditional” education, but the son receives a more “natural” education (e.g. learning animal languages instead of Greek and Latin). The Church needs a new Pope, but is relying on the advice of animals to find one.
- Psychological. Because these stories are passed along through oral traditions, they speak to the human experience and reveal feelings about important life events that apply to all listeners and allow people to deal with various stresses in life. In this story, the separation from home that occurs when a person reaches adulthood is addressed, and no matter how bad you think you had it, this story is worse. If you’ve ever found it stressful to be in a new culture, as a tourist, or being given a new responsibility you don’t fully understand, imagine the stress of being made Pope when you don’t even know the script for the mass!
So, what does any of this have to do with the Book of Mormon? My immediate thought was that both the Grimms’ collection and the Book of Mormon emerged at a similar time in history. The Grimms began collecting these stories in the same year Joseph Smith was born, 1805. Their first edition was published seven years later on December 20, 1812. The Book of Mormon wasn’t published until 1830, but according to Joseph’s account, he was shown the plates as early as 1820, a mere 8 years after the publication of the first Grimms’ Fairy Tales. The Romanticism movement was still very much in force, and literary movements aren’t just for authors; they tell us about the era and culture of human history.
There is always resistance to any literary criticism applied to scripture, which I recognize. My first exposure to literary criticism of scripture was at BYU, in a Bible as Literature class. The Book of Mormon creates added complexity, however, because of its recency and the questions cast on its origin. If it’s deemed a 19th century work, many will use this as “proof” or at least evidence that Mormonism is false; therefore, discussing the literary climate of the 19th century as having any relevance immediately sets up red flags for some. Apologists often defuse these tensions by pointing to the 19th century scribes and “translators” as contributing, even unconsciously, to the product. Likewise, we could claim that it was written anciently but intended to appeal to a “modern” (at least 19th century) audience by its original authors. There’s always a way to address these types of concerns, so having said it, I will attempt to go where angels fear to tread, taking a brief look at the the Book of Mormon through the lens of these three forms of literary criticism.
To attempt this we need to understand similar literature or stories that emerged in this time frame, where they came from, how widespread their influence was, etc. There are different time frames to be considered: 1) 19th century literature, particularly American literature with Native American themes, and 2) ancient Hebrew literature, particularly from the time of 600 A.D. (generally the Bible is the preferred source, but scholars might cast a broader net, and 3) mythology and other writings of native peoples from the Americas, particularly those that may originate between 600 A.D. and 400 B.C.
The risk in this attempt is as old as the Book of Mormon itself; attempting this only as a method of proving or disproving the origins of the book. Lather, rinse, repeat, ad nauseum. No thanks.
It occurred to me, though, in listening to the tale The Three Languages, that if we assume that such an endeavor is impossible, looking for the cultural and mythological elements in the context of other stories from these people and places is worth doing for its own sake. The Book of Mormon is chock full of mythological story elements that are noteworthy, to name just a few:
- The Liahona, a magical item that gives direction to its possessor.
- Brothers, enduring sibling rivalry, killing a villain to get a family treasure.
- A supernatural being preventing brothers from beating their younger, smarter brother.
- A hero building a boat without knowing how to build a boat. (Nephi’s boat-building without foreknowledge is a type for Joseph building a religion without knowing how to build a religion).
- A sea journey made by a family to a new land.
Relevant stories and myths could be in ancient Americas, the middle east, or in other 18th and early 19th century American literature. That’s just a very brief starter list, but there are many of these elements that would be very comfortable in a Grimms story. If we view the text as simply a historical record of actual events (aka Nephi’s self-aggrandizing journal), there’s one level of insight to be gained. We are reduced to evaluating the events through the eyes of narrator Nephi or being skeptical about him as a narrator (or questioning the accuracy of his statements about what happened and the motives and actions of others). If we view the stories in the context of cultural mythologies, we see that there are many of the same themes that appear elsewhere in history.
While the Grimms brothers collected the stories told among German people, they also edited them based on their own interests and concerns, attempting to craft a message that would elevate and unite the common German people who were living under Napoleon.
Sex and violence are the major thematic concerns of tales in the Grimms’ collection, at least in their unedited form. However, it is more important to note that sex and violence in that body of stories frequently take the perverse form of incest and child abuse, for the nuclear family constitutes its most common subject. When it came to passages colored by sexual details or to plots based on Oedipal conflicts, Wilhelm Grimm exhibited extraordinary editorial zeal. Over the years, he systematically purged the collection of references to sexuality and masked depictions of incestuous desire. But lurid portrayals of child abuse, starvation, and exposure, like fastidious descriptions of /cruel punishments, on the whole escaped censorship. ‘The facts of life seemed to have been more disturbing to the Grimms than the harsh realities of everyday life’ (Tatar 10–11).
So, even though we can still see the vestiges of child abuse, incest, cannibalism, and so forth, we are still getting an edited version of the stories as they were being told. In making these edits, they became part author, part scribe of the stories as we know them.
One purpose of the Grimms’ compilation was to create a national identity and to extol the folk wisdom of the common people. This is a core aim of the Romantic movement. The Book of Mormon functions similarly for members of our faith. From an article on Romanticism:
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were major participants in the Romantic Era and used the cultural movement as inspiration to collect fairytales. Romanticism gave the two an opportunity to take the tales of their culture and modernize the stories by editing the tales for the period. Romantics thought highly of country folk, seeing them as a great source of genius.
The Book of Mormon, like Grimms’ Fairy Tales, extols the common man’s virtues and wisdom, and is self-conscious in describing the flaws of its authors and contributors, pointing out repeatedly that they are just writing this the best they can. The existence of the Book of Mormon is also an example of taking a “lowly person” or one that is not educated in the traditional sense and elevating that person to the role of “wise person,” seer or prophet.
The book, and its existence, also take a crack at institutionalized religion. Lehi’s family leaves Jerusalem, the seat of religious power, and strikes out into the wilderness, living solely based on their own revelation and faith with no connection to their homeland or instructions from Church elders. Likewise, Joseph Smith strikes out on his own, rejecting the faith of his family members, and creates his own religion in the process, based in part on the Christian principles and scriptures he grew up with, but infusing it with wholly new religious ideas and doctrines.
The Book of Mormon is also critical of patriarchal family structures that existed in Jerusalem. While the culture of Lehi’s family would put Laman at the head as his successor, Nephi is instead favored by the Lord. The rejection of Laman as next head of the patriarchy results in all kinds of mischief down the line, but it is based on a core Romantic value, that systems and institutions are trumped by the natural world, the merits of those who are overlooked, and often, this hidden merit is revealed through magical (or miraculous in a religious sense) means. Additionally, the family rejects its city life with shelter and ease and basically embarks on a multi-year camping trip in the wilderness, leaving the structures and comforts of society for the pleasures and difficulties of the natural world.
This view of the Book of Mormon (for this purpose, easiest to stick with 1 Nephi) could rename the chapter The Pathos of Nephi. It can be a story about the difficulties of leaving one’s inheritance, everyone you know, and being on your own in a harsh world, fending for yourself. There’s a yearning to create a new world, one in which you are no longer tied to the traditions and institutions of the past.
There are also plenty of family squabbles to instruct the reader. The less deserving brothers who only follow their father reluctantly, the visionary father who throws it all away based on his ideas and feelings, the younger son supplanting his older brothers–there are psychological ideas in here about family duty, leadership, trust, and about following your own vision rather than your community’s.
Later stories in the Book of Mormon illustrate different psychological elements: temper and rash judgment (Captain Moroni), patience and leadership (Pahoran), political strife (the entire second half of the book), faith despite lazy religious practices (brother of Jared), trickery in warfare (you know where this stuff is), yearning for a religious experience, for the divine (Nephi, Enos, Alma, Joseph Smith himself).
From a psychological perspective, though, I don’t personally find the Book of Mormon to be very compelling. Too often, the main characters are very defensive of their own motives and the secondary characters often lack depth. For example, Sherem, Nehor and Korihor are not believable as people. Their motives don’t line up with their actions. They behave in ways that don’t make sense within the stories. They appear to be stock villains dreamed up by the self-appointed heroes of the story, a foil for their own goodness.
The dearth of female characters and perspectives also speaks volumes about the author(s) of the book. It’s largely as though women don’t exist in these stories except as an occasional matriarchal voice far off center stage, the loyal wife to a king, or a female servant who only exists to convert.
Personally, I find the Romanticism angle of the Book of Mormon to be a compelling perspective on the book. Its main themes line up nicely (as they do in the Bible as well, which is clearly not from that era). I’d like to know more about the mythological parallels with other relevant stories to be more intrigued by the historical view of it, but I don’t think we will ever hear that in a gospel doctrine class as it will cast doubt on the origin as a historical record (even attaching the word “myth” to a scripture story seems to raise hackles for some ward members). I would also be interested in more of a deep dive on the motives of the Book of Mormon characters in our gospel doctrine discussions (and far less on their relative merits, holding up some as paragons of virtue, and others as spiritual pariahs and villains).
What do you think?
- Do you find a literary view of scripture to be useful to its study? Why or why not?
- Do you see parallels with other stories? Which ones have you noticed?
- Do you find the psychological aspects of the Book of Mormon stories and characters compelling?
I don’t find the literary view of the BoM very compelling, although there are LDS authors who try to make that case.
The romantic view has something to offer, it seems, but I’m more of an Enlightenment guy. I don’t really connect with what makes the Romantic era tick. But there are some good articles out there that take up the theme (can’t remember the references). The BoM is certainly post-Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment. It rejects experts and expertise — as you noted, no boatbuilding expertise required to build an ocean-crossing boat, and it even rejects full-time ministers in favor of farmer-priests who work with their hands and then just wing it as lay ministers on the sabbath. And here’s an example of the BoM anti-intellectual stance, from 2 Nephi 9:28: “O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not.”
The psychological view has a lot to offer. There just seems to be a lot of Joseph Smith and his life up to 1830 that appears in the Book of Mormon, in various guises and scenarios. And of course there are places where Joseph is written directly into the narrative (2 Nephi 3) or he claims to interact with objects that appear in the BoM narrative (plates, interpreters and seer stones, the sword of Laban). Dan Vogel’s biography of Joseph Smith explores some of this.
Amazing post, write the book.
One way of looking at scripture, myth and storytelling is as ‘letters from our ancestors’, stories that contain wisdom that has stood the test of time and provides a useful guide particularly if interpreted by wise and benificent parents.
Some might see the BoM as a literal letter, and I think that’s OK. Whatever floats your boat, or guides your way, or comforts you in the storms of life. We can be heroes.
The Book of Mormon doesn’t read very “Romantic” to me. There are simply not enough female characters. And yes…I know “Romanticism” has nothing to do with romantic love (I teach art history classes in college).
There needs to be a lot more than just drama, melodrama, violence, and intrigue to make a piece of literature “Romantic.” We’d need more psychological probing into character motivations. There is a world of difference between the juvenile stories of the Book of Mormon and the heavy stuff of, say…..Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.
Extolling the common man’s virtues is not unique to Romanticism, and is, in fact, also an Enlightenment era trademark. Jean-Simeon Chardin’s paintings of the “common” person doing common things in a style the art history textbooks call “Natural” art, are great examples of a pre-Romantic emphasis on the qualities of the common “man,” to use their terminology. They are rooted in the idea that humankind in its natural state untouched by wealth and education is a paragon of virtue and purity, It was partly in response to these ideas born out of the Enlightenment thinking that gave us this notion that ordinary human beings could govern themselves.
The mysticism in the Book of Mormon, Lehi’s initial vision for instance, can certainly ring the Romantic bells of William Blake, but even this example lacks that magical aura of mystery I think is needed to really call it “Romantic.” Joseph Smith is just so practical and bland about. He just launches right into it. No build up.
“Hi, I am Nephi. I have great parents. Dad was out and about one day preaching, and he saw this pillar of fire…..”
Joseph Smith was trying to mimic the bland sound of Biblical narrative. There are some exciting plot twists and turns, but there are the same in the Old Testament. The story of Old Testament Joseph secretly dealing with his brothers in Egypt, deceiving them about his true identity, is fascinatingly Shakespearean! The Book of Mormon, even with the possible influence of Romanticism to assist it, still can’t even come close to that kind of suspense. There is no color. No attempt to draw the reader into the emotional storm of it.
What I do see in the Book of Mormon, however, having once been a teenage boy, is the mindset of a teenage boy. I can’t pin the religious sermon chapters on that, but the “history” chapters? Yes…..these were mostly written by a pre-pubescent boy who had not yet discovered how fascinating female characters could be because he had not yet discovered for himself just what exactly is so fascinating about women in general. Of course, that changed…..and the rest is history.
TL;DR: The Book of Mormon stories, (that my teacher tells to me), are pathetically shallow in comparison to the great Romantic writers. Joseph Smith didn’t find women very interesting at first, but later he did.
John, thank you. I could not agree more about the BOM’s actual literary merits. I don’t understand when people call it their favorite book. It always makes me think “Have you read any other book ever?” I realize that’s a minority view among Mormons. It doesn’t signify whether the book is ancient or 19th c, whether it contains valuable truths or not–it’s just not written well as a compelling narrative, and the character development is weak. *sigh* Things that would make for better Gospel Doctrine discussions: Star Trek episodes, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, etc. But I digress.
This is an interesting post. I like the literary studies notion. I’m currently working on an article that theorizes the Book of Mormon is actually a kind of subversive tragedy. Mormon and Moroni in particular mention solitude and loneliness and I think the book’s conclusion amplifies that loneliness. There isn’t anyone left except Moroni because everyone else has died at someone else’s hand. There’s a long scriptural history of prophets feeling isolated or cut off (both literally and figuratively) and Moroni is clearly one of them. And there’s a lot of literary theory about tragedy essentially being about alienation; Stanley Cavell defines “tragedy” as a refusal to know and to be known. In that sense, your thoughts about Romanticism fit. I think it’s a stretch to call Moroni a Byronic hero, but I do think there’s something about isolation, solitude and a kind of skeptical self-reliance going on in the B of M. I’ve always read Moroni’s closing exhortation to turn to Christ, etc. as a hollow one. We’ve just finished reading a narrative where no-one turned to Christ and everyone slaughtered each other. I suppose one could read the violent ending of the book as a kind of cautionary tale: “see what happens when you don’t follow Christ?”, but to me, Moroni’s words ring hollow. We’re exhorted to turn to Christ, but we’ve just been shown a bunch of people who were exhorted to turn to Christ, and they chose not to, which sort of amplifies the role that human agency plays in things and thus de-emphasizes, I think, the role that deity plays in human affairs; Moroni can exhort us to follow Christ, but we don’t have to. Neither he nor Christ can force us to follow him. Also, note that we never, either in the Bible or in the B of M, for instance, ever get a concrete glimpse of the afterlife, where God’s will and judgement supposedly reign. We get projections, we get threats about doing the right thing or you’ll get punished, etc., but we don’t ever actually see the afterlife, its hierarchies or the beings who reside there. The message of the B of M is really that human agency is more powerful than God’s will, at least when it comes to the earthly realm. I’m sure God didn’t want the Nephites and Lamanites to kill each other, but they did anyway and he didn’t (or couldn’t) stop them. In that sense, the B of M does hearken to Romanticism. I think of Byron’s Manfred, who in the end chose neither heaven nor hell, thus rejecting the Christian binary while dying.
So I think that Joseph Smith actually wrote the B of M as a way to critique Christianity and its assumptions about the role of divine will and its intervention in human affairs (I actually think that the killing of Laban bears this out). While there are stunning moments where God/Christ/angels make an appearance or speak to characters, the ways and reasons that events play out in the text is entirely a function of human will. That kind of self-determining ethos is all over Romanticism.
I don’t understand when people call it their favorite book”. You probably don’t understand how it placed 8th on the 10 most influential books survey by the Library of Congress.
…big fingers….small phone….sorry for the downvote. It was an accident.
I’m with Dave B. I’m not as in love with the literary approach, or at least the ones that have been done. The main reason being that its author(s) didn’t write the book with the intent of regarding it as fiction but as an actual history that revealed the missing parts of true Christianity.
Now does that mean we can’t view history books or writings in non-fiction through literary prisms? No. The authors of many parts of the Bible didn’t fully intend their writings to be understood as fictional, and yet literary approaches to the Bible have great value. But here is the big difference. All writers about the Bible are in agreement that its authors are ancients and that the Bible is a window into ancient Semitic thought and culture. With the Book of Mormon, literary approaches are often a sort desperate attempt on the part of liberal believers to create a narrative about the Book of Mormon that avoids the thornier historicity issue and can have a wider non-Mormon audience. But the most popular literary approaches this far just seem like either cop-outs or subtle arguments in favor of historicity (I.e. Givens and Hardy). Much like it is hard to talk of the literary value of the Bible without addressing history and historical context, we can’t really do a good analysis of the literary value of the Book of Mormon without touching on the historicity issue. I would be interested in a literary approach that views the Book of Mormon as a window into the mind of Joseph Smith and nineteenth-century upstate New York culture. But I am not terribly interested in an approach that tries to avoid historicity altogether or one that subtly treats the Book of Mormon as a window into ancient American thought.
Mark, you caught my interest. I couldn’t find a Library of Congress “10 most influential books” list, but there was an LOC “88 books that shaped America” list, issued in conjunction with an Exhibit at the LOC in 2012. The Book of Mormon was not on the list.
However, there was a survey posted at the LOC website to solicit feedback from the public. Nine thousand people responded. As a result, 12 additional books were added a year later, to bring the amended list to an even one hundred. The Book of Mormon was one of the 12 additions, as well as The Common Law by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and Free to Choose by Milton Friedman (not exactly a page turner, but there you go). I’m thinking Mormons out in Utah got wind of the fact that the BoM wasn’t on the original list of 88 and started a campaign to flood the survey with demands it be included. Probably wrote letters to Mormon senators, too. Full story:
It’s actually the 4th most:
Mark & Andy, I didn’t say it wasn’t influential. I just said it’s poorly written and not great literature. I’m happy for the people who find inspiration in its pages. Anything that elevates the human condition is a positive.
I have been looking for an opportunity to quote Candide by Voltair in Sac meeting for a decade, but alas, none of the topics I’ve been given have fit well.
JLM, Why does it need to fit well? If heard a number of GA and HC talks with random content!
I’m not sure the order in which they appear in the list means anything.
Brother Sky, as a sometimes fan of Lord Byron’s writing, I very much enjoyed your comment. I’d agree that Moroni, while an engrossing study in alienation and tragedy, doesn’t really qualify as a Byronic hero. To me, for a literary figure to be designated a Byronic hero pretty much requires a shadowy past with incest-level scandals. That said, whoever wrote the Book of Mormon seemed infatuated with the image of a defiantly independent man wandering off alone, and where he goes, “no man knoweth.” I’m thinking of Alma 45:18-19 and 3 Nephi 1:3.
I think we can say Mormonism has an authentic Byronic hero, none other than real-life Joseph Smith, Jr. Though… real-life Byronic heroes, Lord Byron in particular, usually leave us a legacy which feels sad and incredibly troubling. But a fictional Byronic hero like Manfred defying the will of gods? Yeah, fascinating, richly conceived character. I can’t think of any such well-developed personalities in the Book of Mormon, with the possible exception of Nephi in 2 Nephi 4. Everyone else feels pretty staunch and two-dimensional.
I think studying the overlap of literary and scriptural approaches is a worthwhile pursuit, provided we can be intellectually honest about what we observe in the texts. For me, when the Book of Mormon ceased to appear as an authentic ancient historical text, it quickly became a clunky, at times unbearably harsh, approach to religiosity. And yeah, if you’re wanting compelling female characters, you HAVE to look elsewhere. I recommend Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, which brings us back to considering Byronic heroes and the people caught up in their self-destructive ambition.
Jake, I agree about the two-dimensionality of the characters. I tend to see patterns in the B of M that are evident in literary texts with which I’m familiar as opposed to seeing great characters who are analogous to, say, Hamlet or Madame Bovary. I think your comments about the “defiantly independent man” are part of a pattern. I have no doubt that Joseph Smith is responsible for the writing of a great deal of the B of M, whether he was “inspired” to “translate” a text or whether he just made it up. I do think there’s a definite link between the sort of alienated yet somehow superior prophet and how Joseph saw himself. One wonders if the tragic hero as a trope resonated with Smith because he saw himself as that kind of person; aloof, superior and misunderstood. Of course, most tragic heroes end up writing their tragedies because of the choices they make and with the very way they live their lives, so perhaps Smith saw that in himself as well. Whether our lives are tragic, comic or somewhere in between, we ourselves are the authors of them.
And your description of the “clunky” nature of the B of M fits with my own impressions. I think that’s why it’s always seemed to me a subversive text rather than a sincere earnest one. YMMV. I wonder if there are any Mormon (or non-Mormon) scholars who interpret the B of M as a parody of sacred texts rather than being an actual sacred text itself. That could be an illuminating avenue of inquiry.